Man vs. Machine

Will technology steal our jobs?

As technology transforms millions of jobs around the world, it has created a “second machine age”, which represents a new inflection point in history.

Just as in the industrial age, machines are improving the effectiveness of the workforce – but they are also automating tasks that humans once performed.

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Knowledge workers are becoming more employable, while the lower-skilled are increasingly commoditized by machines. 

How will technology affect jobs in the future and the well-being of the people who carry them out? It is unclear whether our increasing use of machines will create more jobs than it replaces, but there is a growing fear that the coming “robot revolution” could make work less meaningful.

“I see a dashboard full of red lights,” says José Manuel Salazar-Xirinachs of the International Labour Organization. Speaking at the World Economic Forum’s “Summer Davos” in China this year, Salazar-Xirinachs explained that the effects of technology have been extremely varied across industries and skill levels.

Knowledge workers are becoming more employable and in demand, while the lower-skilled are increasingly commoditized by machines.


What does this mean for social stability around the world? We need only look at places where there are rising rates of unemployment to see how this issue can tear societies apart.

Personally, I have no doubt that the rise of ISIS in the Middle East is fuelled by, among other things, youth unemployment; it is all too easy for disaffected young people to turn to extremism.

It is clear that the gap between the wealthy and the poor is growing wider – and that this is exacerbated by technology. Can innovation be made to be inclusive?

Or is there something in the words of science-fiction writers here, and our future world is one where innovation has broken down the fabric of society and created an Elysium-like divide between the ultra-wealthy and everyone else?

The scale of this problem should not be underestimated. Just look at the billions of agricultural workers living close to poverty whose work could be replaced by machinery.

No society has the capacity to absorb this dislocation and connect all these workers with income-generating activities. And where would such displacement end?

If smart machines depress the salary of lower-skilled workers, they may reach a point where they can’t access new jobs as they won’t be able to afford to reskill and retool.

With the rise of MOOCs and online free education, however, this may not be the case. The promise of online training is to enable anyone and everyone to up-skill and respond, in real time, to the changing demands of the economy.

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  The promise of online training is to enable anyone and everyone to respond to the changing demands of the economy.

Essentially, what it means is that education and professional development can go from “high touch” and high cost to no cost and almost entirely automated. However, the potential of this depends on our ability to bridge the digital divide.

No Clear Winners

The real question here is who is serving whom? Are machines serving man or is it the other way round? “Ubiquitous computing” has reduced the barriers between private and professional lives, and between home and office. This has had questionable benefits for individual happiness.

Speaking at the Forum’s China meeting this year, MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Justine Cassell of Carnegie Mellon University both expressed their belief that the changes are inevitable.

Cassell said: “Will smart machines make humans worse off? If the answer is yes then we should stop developing them now. But the reality is that this is not possible; we are on the journey and smart machines will become a reality. When machines substitute for muscles we need jobs that require brains.”

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“The question is not what technology will do for us, it is how we use technology to create shared prosperity.” -Justine Cassell

While both professors expressed cautious optimism, Brynjolfsson maintained that the future is under our control, we just need to lead it in the right direction.

“The question is not what technology will do for us, it is how we use technology to create shared prosperity,” he explained. “How we divide the bounty opportune by technology is not decided by machines, it is decided by us; we can’t blame the machines.”

Participants in the session separated into those who were for the machine age and those who were against it. A vote was organized, but the result was 50/50.

It’s clear that more discussion is needed about the disruption unleashed by unprecedented technological advancement – and the dangers and opportunities it presents.

I, too, remain undecided. I have grave concerns but am still hugely optimistic. It’s clear we have entered a period of digital enlightenment. It’s not too late to use technology to democratize education and, in doing so, enable people to reach their potential.

For the promise of technological inclusion to become a reality, however, it will take strong leadership and collaboration between governments and businesses. The future of our society as we know it depends on it. goldbrown2

This article first appeared on October 14, 2014 on World Economic Forum and was republished with permission.

Lucian Tarnowski is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the social learning platform BraveNewTalent. He is also a Young Global Leader with the World Economic Forum.

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